6 years after his first attempt, Aaron finally ran his first sub-4 hour marathon at this stunningly beautiful coastal marathon.
Race Background and Training
After finishing the Morgantown Marathon with a slow-ish time compared to what I wanted, I had a little less than four weeks to plan for my next marathon. To cross the state of Maine off the list, we would be traveling north to Bar Harbor where I would run the Mount Desert Island Marathon. From what I read online from many race reviews, this is one of the most recommended marathons on the East Coast. Not because it is easy (in fact quite the contrary…more on that in a moment), but that the scenic course is one of the most beautiful in the country.
I had been looking forward to this marathon all year, constantly reading articles about how beautiful of a race it is. It was hard to believe that in three weeks I would be running it. There was not anything really drastic I could do in three weeks to improve my current running level of fitness, so I simply repeated the last three weeks of my training from the Morgantown Marathon, modifying the last week to add in an early day of mile repeats to get my body used to running at a quick tempo.
This would be my 8th try at running a marathon under 4 hours, but I had my doubts when I started to research the course layout.
After the brutal elevation gain of the Morgantown Marathon, I was hoping that Mount Desert Island would be a little more forgiving on my legs. The course itself runs from Bar Harbor, ME along the coast through Acadia National Park, finishing at Southwest Harbor..another coastal town on the island.
While the scenery of the course would be incredible, unfortunately the elevation profile looked to have the same amount of elevation gain as Morgantown (between 1,700 – 1,800 ft). This would mean several large inclines that I would have to ascend while keeping my pace on target for a sub-4 hour time. I believed I could do it, but deep inside I had some doubt and feared a repeat performance of Morgantown, WV.
We split our road trip from Winchester, VA to Maine up into two parts and traveled through 10 states arriving at Bar Harbor on Friday evening. While there was nothing notable on the drive up, once we exited the highway in Maine towards Bar Harbor, the foliage on the trees really came to life with those beautiful fall colors. I regret not stopping to get a photo of a graveyard we passed that was surrounded by trees with bright orange leaves resulting in a Halloween landscape straight out of a painting.
There was some major construction being done on the roads of Mount Desert Island, but nothing that caused any issues. We stopped to pickup my racing bib and packet on Friday evening (and to take some photos by a lobster statue), before checking into our hotel. We would be staying roughly a 10 minute walk from the race starting line, so our location was perfect.
Saturday morning after a nice free hot hotel breakfast, we spent our time visiting the various quaint shops along the Main Street of Bar Harbor. The weather was dreary…drizzle and light rain…but with a forecast of sun and temps in the upper 40s on race day…I was not going to complain. Apparently cruise ships like to dock near Bar Harbor as well, so despite the weather, the streets were quite crowded with tourists.
Sadly the worst part of the trip was having our whale watching cruise cancelled. We had planned this months ago, but due to either bad weather or lack of whale sightings, it was cancelled and refunded. We were all sad (especially Caitlin with her favorite animal being the whale), but were able to make the best of it by going on a trolley tour of Acadia National Park instead. The tour was very informative, and highlights included getting soaked from a crashing wave while visiting thunder hole cave, and seeing the clouds part while descending Cadillac Mountain.
Dinner was steamed lobster of course (I went with salmon as to not take a food risk the night before the marathon). Regarding that point, I had also made sure to eat a little more carbs that day to see if it would help my marathon performance. I had tried to do a slight one-day carb load in the past, but this time I ratcheted it up a notch. Nothing crazy…just a few more potatoes, whole grains, and fruit throughout the day.
Race Day Morning
With a race start time of 8 a.m., I woke up at 5 a.m. to have my traditional race day morning breakfast: whole wheat bagel with slabs of almond butter, one banana, and one cup of coffee. I took another look at a few last reviews of the impending marathon course to pass the time hoping to gain some final insight. That’s when I realized that not only would each large incline of the course be followed by a rewarding downhill…but that the last two miles of the marathon would be a gradual downhill as well. Perhaps I could come close to running a sub-4 hour marathon.
After dressing, around 7:15 a.m. I made the walk down to the marathon start line. Having come up from Virginia, this was the first day of the season that truly felt like fall! The sun was coming up and the morning temperatures were in the upper 30s. It was going to be chilly, which meant perfect marathon weather! Sporting my racing winter hat and gloves since my ears and hands get cold even in the upper 40s, I also wore a pair of throwaway sweatpants that I would discard for donation prior to the start of the race.
It was such a perfect morning that I began to shiver inside with excitement. With the start of the marathon on Bar Harbor’s main street, I began my pre-race mobility routine sizing up the other runners. One that I will never forget was a lady wearing a large inflatable lobster back pack. As the clock ticked down to the starting gun, a military member played a beautiful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on the trumpet. Then with the speakers blaring the beginning of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck“, the announcer gave a final countdown until an army regiment fired their rifles into the air…and the 2018 Mount Desert Marathon was on!
The First 13.1 Miles
My plan for the race would be to keep a quick-footed pace of slightly under 9 minutes / mile. The first two miles were right around 9:00 which included a good incline. Miles 3 and 4 would be downhill..and that is when I realized for whatever reason I had the slight urge to use the bathroom (no. 1 for appropriate documentation).
My plan would be to quickly use the port-o-pot the first sight of one. However when we came into sight of the first bathroom stop there was already a line. As a steep decline began through the woods I wondered if I could run into the woods quick enough to relieve myself and continue on. As I debated this I suddenly saw another runner dart into the woods behind a very large rock, so I figured if he was doing it, I could. I felt much better after that 15 second bathroom break, and quickly darted back onto the course from where I ran off and sped up to make up for lost time. This may have inadvertently helped me as I was able to keep that quicker “catch-up” pace going down the hill and into the next several miles.
My pace was consistently around the 8:40-8:50 / mile mark heading into the halfway point…and I clocked in the halfway point at 1:57:25. The first thing that popped into my head was I was on this pace back in 2017 when doing the Disney World Marathon, but crashed badly towards the end. However I felt more confident now as I was not only running stronger, but smarter. I was sticking on plan with my fueling strategy (a sip of CLIF hydration drink each mile, with a GU energy gel every 4 miles) and keeping my mind positive by yelling “thank you” to any volunteer or cheering spectator I passed. I was also eavesdropping on the conversations of nearby runners…one of which I distinctly remember involving how difficult it is to catch a leaf mid-air as it falls from a tree.
The Second Half
While the course had been beautiful so far, miles 14 through 20 is where the hyped lived up to its name. Through this section we ran along the coastline and it was breathtaking. The view of the water, mountains, and trees was incredible. The highlight of the course was at this point too…a large fishing boat of some type blowing its horn to cheer on and encourage the runners. I recall at this point feeling incredible.
Heading into mile 20 I knew it was now time to dig deep. I was 6 miles from the end and had clocked in at 2:56:58. The course would gradually incline until mile 24 so this is where I was either going to set a marathon PR of under 4 hours or fail for an 8th time. As I took my mile 20 gel things did not get off to a good start as I dropped my glove (right after passing a cheering spectator in an inflatable sumo suit). I quickly doubled back to carefully pick it up…not wanting to pull any muscles…and resume my pace.
I don’t recall much about those next 4 miles other than focusing solely on one mile at a time and staying positive. Fearing a sudden energy crash like I have had in past marathons, I made sure to keep moving my feet with quick steps up the inclines never stopping to walk. If I stopped to walk even for a few seconds, I knew it would be almost impossible to start up again at my current pace. Reaching mile 24 there was a course cyclist who had been monitoring the runners that had stopped to cheer us on. Passing him I asked, “Any more inclines?”. He smiled and said, “Aside from that very small one ahead, it is all downhill.”
After passing mile 25 I my the time on my watch read 3:44:38. With one mile to go I couldn’t believe it. I was finally going to do it and run a marathon in under 4 hours. My mind started to go through crazy scenarios that would prevent me from finishing…another runner crashing into me…a sudden heart attack…ugh!…but I knew that was not going to happen. I saw the finish line in sight and began looking for Christie and the girls. 100M from the finish line I saw them cheering and taking videos / photos. I yelled out to them, “I’m going to do it! I’m going to do it!!!”, and crossed the finish line with a marathon PR of 3:57:11.
Post Race Reflections and Lessons Learned
I couldn’t believe it. 6 years ago I ran my first marathon at the Anthem Richmond Marathon. My goal that day was to run the marathon in under 4 hours. I failed by one minute with a time of 4:01:20. Almost exactly 6 years later and after 6 other states worth of marathons, I achieved that goal.
Grabbing some post-race food and beverage, the mental feeling was outstanding. My legs however had other ideas as they tried to cramp up on me. Not wanting to make the mistake of my first marathon, I kept moving and walking. My muscles hurt pretty bad, but I was not injured, and I knew that the pain would be temporary. Christie had parked a good ways from the finish line which was actually a good thing…and by the time I walked back to the car the pain was gone.
We departed Bar Harbor for the first leg of our trip back home, stopping at a Maine diner for a celebratory meal. I reflected on what made this race a success and how I had learned from my mistakes of the past. I attribute it all to everything I’ve learned since 2012…not to start out too fast, to eat fuel during a long run, staying hydrated, keeping a steady pace with negative splits, and having a little bit of luck with nice weather too.
With 42 more states to go to complete my 50 Marathons in 50 States challenge, I have plenty of time to see if my marathon time improves further. Like many runners, I have a dream of running a time good enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I’m not sure how realistic that goal is, but it can’t hurt to try. Then again I thought I would never run a marathon under 4 hours either.
Official Race Results
Overall: 204 out of 739
Male: 139 out of 351
Male 35-39: 20 of 46
Photos from the Trip and Race Day
This race is part of Aaron’s 50 Marathons in 50 States Challenge:
Click on a state to see a recap of that marathon.